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Bridging Theory and Practice: A Look at Law in Practice with University of Minnesota Law's Randall Ryder

By Ayo Shittu

University of Minnesota, Randall Ryder

Professor Randall Ryder of University of Minnesota Law discusses the blend of theory and hands-on learning that makes the school's award-winning Law in Practice program a transformative experience for law students.

In this Q&A, we chat with Professor Ryder, Director of the University of Minnesota Law School's Law in Practice program, about the one-of-a-kind program that's garnered accolades for its revolutionary approach to legal eduction. Professor Ryder sheds light on how this program seamlessly integrates legal theory with practical skills, creating a robust training ground for tomorrow's lawyers.

Tell us a bit about the program. How does it work? What are the goals?

On the first day of class, I tell my students that we want to give you the chance to play in the sandbox—to practice—so that when you do it as a lawyer, it's not the first time. We accomplish that through comprehensive simulations that include trained actors standing in as clients. Students work on a litigation case file for half the semester and then switch to a new transactional case file for the second half of the semester. We want our students to develop tangible legal skills so they can hit the ground running during their 1L summers.

What do the case files look like?

We rotate through three cases every year for both the litigation and transactional files. On the litigation side, one year, we have a bank fraud case, an employment discrimination case, or a wage theft case. The litigation cases include a client interview, deposition, chambers conference with a real judge, and mediation with a real mediator. The transactional files always include a meeting with a client and a face-to-face negotiation with their classmates.

What roles do practicing lawyers play in this program?

Practicing attorneys play a critical role, and their participation is one of the hallmarks of the program. Each week, students have a law firm class taught by me and other faculty members, where we talk about what's going on in the case. Then, the attorney instructors run the simulations. The practicing attorney observes the simulation — and when the simulation is complete, the practicing attorney provides the students with oral feedback, along with more comprehensive written feedback.

Is it difficult to find attorneys willing to participate in the program?

It's the opposite. Most of them don't leave. They love teaching in the program. Some are former students who took the class. Others just recognize what a great course it is. Their participation in this program is rewarding for them, but there is a broader recognition within the community that this is of value to the industry. Some local law firms even use the course as a recruitment opportunity. That is a great example of a secondary goal of the program - helping students build a professional network in the legal community.

What do you hear from students about the program?

The best part is that during the summer, I always get unsolicited emails from students, saying, “Hey, professor, I wanted to let you know that I just sat in on my first client interview, and I felt so much more comfortable because of Law in Practice,” or, “I sat in on a deposition, and normally that's not an opportunity folks would get but I told them that I've taken one and they let me sit in.” The best outcome you could hope for is that the students feel more comfortable doing x, y, or z as a summer associate because of this class.

Have you had conversations around this course meeting the new professional identity formation requirement for law schools?

Yes, it’s one of the rare courses where you’re exposed to litigation and transactional work. There are not a lot of experiential transactional courses in school. Students also receive feedback from their attorney instructor and feedback from at least one other attorney on the other side of the case, in addition to a judge and a mediator. So that creates an opportunity to parse out questions related to professional identity. What do you want to do? What kind of lawyer do you want to be? What kind of lawyers do you want to work with? We also put a lot of emphasis on developing executive professional skills like adherence to deadlines, open communication, and how you deal with challenges. Those are questions we want them to answer in law school.

Are there any feedback loops that you see come up again and again?

One pattern that we see is students realizing how much of the practice of law is interacting with people and being a people person. That means active listening, empathizing, sympathizing, and learning how to interact with opposing counsel. Early in the semester, a lot of students lean into an analytical approach — because that's what they've learned in law school. But by the end of the course, they have learned the importance of trusting your gut, reading the social cues, making eye contact, taking notes, and thanking the client for meeting with them.

How do the students feel about the technological shifts we're seeing in the profession?

Because a majority of the course is focused on skill development, AI is less important for this particular course. However, we are aware of opportunities to integrate AI, to ensure that our course continues to mirror the actual practice of law.

Do you have any tips for schools interested in running programs like this?

The more realistic you can make it, the better it is. Even if you pick one simulation and get actors and practicing attorneys for that simulation, that’s a considerable improvement over using fellow students to play the roles of clients. And if a school is not able to run a comprehensive program like ours, pick one simulation and make it real. Get actors, get judges, get whoever you need, but just make sure it is as real as possible.

What if you could speak directly to somebody who is still stuck in the mindset that this isn't the work of law schools?

This is exactly what law schools should be doing. This is what firms want. I think every school should have a program like this. Look at the NextGen bar exam. That is a major shift on the horizon —the NCBE and the profession recognize the importance of students developing these skills during law school. What the profession wants from young lawyers and even law students is changing and it’s up to law schools to meet that challenge. If a school has a program like ours, its students will be prepared.

Hotshot can work with you to implement flipped classroom techniques. We can also brainstorm other ways to engage and educate your students. Contact us to learn more.